On the Mechanics of Human Empathy
20 March 2k9
“When the Special Theory of Relativity began to germinate in me, I was visited by all sorts of nervous conflicts…I used to go away for weeks in a state of confusion.”
“We still do not know one thousandth of one percent of what nature has revealed to us.”
On 30 July 1905, Albert Einstein published a paper entitled “On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies”. Among the many revelations it contained was the mind-shatteringly elegant formula E=MC2, which is now emblazoned on simply everything: coffee mugs, T-shirts, computer screens, posters, and panties. (yeah, they’re out there, much to Albert’s puzzlement and dismay, I’m sure.) Yet, at the time it only caused ripples among physicists…at first. Of course, we soon learned that his work had turned physics right on its egghead, had forever changed how we perceive the very Universe.
On 20 March 1916, Einstein published a paper on his General Theory of Relativity. In short, with that monumental discovery he blew our collective freaking minds. But then again, he’d been doing that since 1905 and by that point we were sort of used to it. He was a physicist become house-hold name; Einstein was the penultimate ‘celebrity scientist’ of the century. (a relatively private man, this never sat well with him.)
As to his overall work on both Special and General Relativity? We could spend hours attempting to explain it to each other; however, unsurprisingly, Einstein himself was incredibly succinct when he said, “Put your hand on a hot stove for a minute, and it seems like an hour. Sit with a pretty girl for an hour, and it seems like a minute. THAT’S relativity.” Dig it, DaddyO, when he affirmed that all things are relative, he wasn’t kidding.
We also know that Einstein felt strongly about the state of humanity—both writing and speaking eloquently, and with passion, regarding the human condition. Among his words are these: “The world is a dangerous place to live, not because of the people who are evil, but because of the people who don’t do anything about it.” While the ideas expressed here are not new, many great philosophers and theologians have been quoted similarly. Such as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel: “…morally speaking, there is no limit to the concern one must feel for the suffering of human beings, that indifference to evil is worse than evil itself…” The important point is that Einstein held these beliefs to be true, he believed that indifference and apathy should be challenged wherever we find such weakness. Especially if it be in our own hearts. And was quoted many times, in many ways, regarding the importance of confronting intolerance, of fostering compassion, both to the individual and to society.
Like his mathematics, his ideas cut through our timid excuses, our half-assed rationalizations; he forces us to face ourselves, to place ourselves either on the sideline or in the fray of confronting hate. And then to live with our decisions.
Clearly, Einstein deeply understood the necessity of compassion, the crucial need for empathy if humanity is ever to mature beyond our self-destructive tendencies, or the social paradigms that drive some of us to commit terrible harm upon others. Einstein knew that, like it or not, we are truly all in this life together:
“A human being is part of a whole, called by us the ‘Universe,’ a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separated from the rest—a kind of optical delusion of the consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circles of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”
If there were a key to the universe, would you use it? What would such a key unlock? What if there were many keys, as I suspect there must be. There are those who believe that the language of mathematics is a universal key to communication; and to my thinking, communication is the key to deciphering both the Universe and its problem-child we call Humanity. With regard to humans, if communication is a key, then the tumblers of the lock would be empathy.
Leonard Cohen wrote that “Love is the only engine of survival.”
Such breathtaking heresies never fail to fill me with glee.
In this modern world those words are indeed a heresy to many. Others might find them too stickily sugar-spun from seeming naïveté to swallow. After all, it is more complicated than that. Right? Life is too fickle, full of unknowns, with far too many variables to be generalized into one such sentence…besides, it’s dog eat dog out there, survival of the fittest. Right?
Wrong, declares the heretic within. This mess we are in is not all that complicated—
If Love were the default mode trained into every child we raised, how would the world look then?
Famine squats in the belly of the world…killing one human every four seconds.
If a starving person, anywhere, were as important and as necessary to us as our own family, wouldn’t there be fewer hungry people?
Please do not falter before the stupefying logistics required. Would it be difficult? Yes. Nevertheless, our society can manage the task of moving massive tonnages of personnel, equipment, and weaponry halfway across the globe, in a matter of hours, merely to kill people. Lots of people. Logic says that feeding people would not only be feasible, but probably easier.
Our problems are not really that complex, it just feels that way because the suffering of vast populations has been allowed to reach the point of atrocity.
If empathy honestly lives in my heart every day; if it thrives not just when it is easy or convenient, but lives like a resilient dandelion that has grown up through the tiniest crack in a stone, then how could I not change the world around me?
Yet, empathy is empty without action. How can I change such an overarching paradigm if I avoid the places where I know people are suffering?
Though it’s a good start, offering food or a few bucks to a shambling wreck who’s spare-changin’ in a parking lot is just not the same as actually seeking them out. It’s not the same as stopping and offering some (un)common respect along with the help. Or do hard times somehow exempt one from this basic dignity? Too often the humanity of an individual is stripped away in an attempt to help them. And one may never even realize the damage done.
I have stood on a corner more than once, hungry and trading work, or words, for whatever I could scrounge. There I learned this truism: everyone has a story. Everyone has history or herstory; like a snowflake, no two are ever the same. And like that bit of frozen, crystallized water, they are just as fragile. Your life can melt away before you even realize it is falling to the ground, mingling with the other snowflakes into the past.
If Justice was truly the rule of the land—by which I mean justice tempered with empathy, designed to benefit society, rather than to avenge it—instead of rule by blind, inflexible Law, how then would righteously angry, disenfranchised, “minority” (read as non-white) defendants fare in our criminal justice system? For that matter, what about any poor soul who made a mistake, or caught an unlucky break? And what of the mentally ill, the chronically suicidal, the misfits and the outcasts…would they still be jailed and institutionalized for their lack of conformity?
Lady Justice up there holding her scales is not only blindfolded, but she has been viciously interrogated, half-drowned, gagged with duct tape and covered with a black hood; then electrocuted with the bare wires of a car battery, and violated with a nightstick before being released, without a single charge. Only to be pulled over on the way home, made to Assume the Position while leering cops search her body and her car. Finally cited for failure to conform, and dutifully sexually harassed, she was mugged on the way home. Because the cops impounded her car for alleged ‘unpaid parking tickets’ after she wouldn’t put out.
If this offends you, good. That means you’re still human; and I’ve done my job—Empathy in action.
For that which is done to the least of us, is inflicted upon all of us.
Make no mistake, I am not suggesting a utopia. There will always be hardship and crime; there will always occur some random and senseless source of sudden agony.
However, does this sorrow so often have to come from each other?
Who can listen to Bill Withers sing and not feel his anguish and loneliness? So clean, like a razor slice and hauntingly beautiful at the same time. Listen to his song Ain’t No Sunshine, listen to the Twenty-Six I Knows and tell me that you don’t hear your own lost, broken love singing harmony somewhere in there.
And again I ask, if you held a key to the Universe, would you use it?